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Monday, 1 September 2014

Cracked Monday

It's great that Doctor Who is back on, but meanwhile we're about half a year away from Game of Thrones.

Thus, it's a good time for crazy fan-theories about GoT that may just be right.


Currently Smoking: Italian Redbark + H&H's Beverwyck

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

Today's adventure was just about derailed!  The most mystical-sided PC (Night Owl) joined a group of pre-eminant wizards and magical superbeings (Marvello, The Green Lama, The Spectre, Dr. Fate) to a meeting they believe had been called by the earth's reigning sorcerer supreme, Aleister Crowley:

But in fact, it was a trap set for all of them by the Stalker From Beyond, a superpowerful demonic entity bent on conquering the world. 

He kicked the crap out of most of the magical heroes (killing Marvello), and was about to Banish the Spectre forever from this world.  That was when something unexpected happened.

One of our PCs is a guy named The Inquisitor, a catholic witch-hunter turned mystery man, who had as a trademark aspect the declaration "No one expects the Inquisition!".  In several occasions in the past I had allowed (with the use of a determination point) the Inquisitor to use this to show up in some scene where he would not otherwise be.  He decided to use his aspect at that exact moment and interpose himself to save the Spectre, essentially sacrificing himself.  So the Inquisitor was banished back to Heaven, while the Spectre remained and proceeded to kick the crap out of a very surprised Stalker long enough for Crowley to banish both of them to their home planes.

This caused a significant change in the planned adventure.  And we paused while the Inquisitor's player set up to make a new character.  Here's when the second surprise came up.  I have the PCs roll their "challenge" on a random table I had set up (because there's nothing I hate more than having players choose their own special disadvantages; I find that gets abused considerably more than letting them choose their own advantages).  As it happened, on his roll, the Inquisitor's PC got "Dead" as his aspect.  We all agreed at this point, the party having already felt that the Inquistor's sacrifice was fucking awesome, to let him come back with a new character that was in essence the Inquisitor sent back to Earth by God, to act as his agent of vengeance to replace the Spectre (it helped that he got like 4 powers, which is the maximum possible in this house-ruled Golden Age campaign).  He came back now as The Archangel.  It was fitting.

Anyways, the rest of the adventure was an assortment of heroes (all-stars, JSA, and Mystery Men) traveling to different parts of the war-torn world of 1945 to stop the seven black magicians who had liberated the Stalker in the first place, defeating their attempt to use the power the Stalker had granted them to conquer the Earth.  I can safely say that a great time was had by all; but the Inquistor/Archangel's character in particular ended up unanimously winning the "best roleplayer" award, by a long shot.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best

Saturday, 30 August 2014

“Real” Magick in RPGs, Continued: Divination

Pretty much every serious magician practices “divination” of some form.  However, divination is an interesting subject because it is also the one magical practice most likely to be at least nominally practiced by non-magicians, or by wannabe-magicians, or by posers.  That’s because of all the forms of magic, its relatively easy to get into, and to have some initial “results” with, however blurry. More than a few great magicians (that is, batshit obsessed magicians) had their start by the seemingly innocent act of buying a tarot deck for kicks.

The first thing to clarify on the subject of divination is that a serious magician wouldn’t refer to it as or consider it to be “fortune telling”.  First, because the purpose of divination is primarily self-analysis, and secondly to help develop an understanding of the language of symbols.  Second, because the way magick understands the nature of reality (and specifically “time”) means that “seeing the future” per se is an impossibility.  “Destiny” is not a concept that has a lot of leverage with magicians or the magical world view; the future is not set, it is rather a series of events that are based on the weight of patterns and prior events.  The events of each moment is the product of the influence of billions of other little and big moments that preceded it.  Thus by doing something, even a “little” something in the present, you can radically alter the future, for yourself, or for the whole world.

Divination doesn’t work by somehow gazing into the future; rather, it works by looking at the present and at that “flow” of events, with a special perspective.  If the future is the product of a current of circumstances flowing from the present, being able to clearly see the present allows you to understand not just how things are in the present, but the general direction in which things are likely to develop.  Hence the name of the Chinese system of divination, the “I Ching” (the book of the changes).  A divination system is a system of symbols, that put together create a kind of scale model, or organizational system, to describe reality.  A “Dewey Decimal system for the universe”, if you would.  As symbols, these systems can intuitively connect with our human consciousness, so that even someone who has almost zero experience with a deck of tarot cards could just intuitively feel their way around them and maybe (assuming they’ve exercised their intuition at all) get a glimpse of the “message” a card reading is trying to tell them.  A magician, on the other hand, studies these symbols profoundly, connecting to them on both the intuitive and intellectual level.  Thus, as he gains in ability, he develops a very good skill at being able to use a divination system to take a “reading” of his own situation, of the balance of his elements, of trends that are going on for him in the present and how these are likely to go in the future, and get ideas of how to shift them subtly in order to make positive changes; or he can likewise do the same for other people.

This working with divinatory tools is thus never (for the hardcore magician) primarily about trying to determine the future; it is part of the process of self-analysis.  You can use a divination tool to try to get a better grasp of your inner nature; it is part of the work a magician does, along with the magical diary and exercises of contemplation and meditation to try to understand themselves better.  A big part of magical theory is that human beings are bound up by “conditionings”; ideas about themselves or the world, about likes and dislikes, about personality, that act as a trap.  I covered some of this while talking about “masks” in the previous installment; the personality mistakenly believed to be the self.  Part of being able to initially liberate one’s self from that ego-persona requires being able to understand it clearly, and divination gives you hints to this. Basically, the symbol becomes a bridge for self-communication, between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Those messages your higher self is trying to send you, which you can’t normally hear clearly, can become clearer when intentionally run through the “translation program” of a divinatory tool.

There are tons of different systems of divination out there, from new age oracles to ancient yoruba cowrie-shell casting; but there are three “big” systems that tend to be the ones most often used by magicians, which I’ll try to briefly explain.  Any of the three may be used by “posers” and magicians alike, but the way they would appear to use them will tend to be different, and can serve to give subtle hints as far as whether you want to portray an NPC magician as a newbie, or as someone who has got their shit together, or as someone who’s plunged off the deep end.

Tarot: the big daddy of the divination systems, the Tarot is a 78-card deck that dates back to the 14th century, though some really ill-informed magicians might try to claim that it dates as far back as Egypt or “ancient Atlantis”. Its four suits plus 22 trumps (major arcana, the cards with names like the Fool, Death, or the Sun) represent, as a whole, a working model of the magical universe.  The suits connect to the four classical elements, while the trumps detail the whole process of magical work and development, from initiation to “union with the universe”.  The tarot is a composite work, it contains in it symbols that are important in the Kabbalah, Astrology, Alchemy, Sufi teaching, and other elements.  There are thousands of decks available, most of which to some extent or another end up stripping away, rather than emphasizing that symbolism.  A newb could be using any deck at all (often some “thematic” deck like the “dragon tarot”, the “celtic tarot”, etc), and will either just make up meanings or have to refer regularly to a book.  Hardcore magicians will generally use either the Crowley “Thoth” deck or one of its variants, or if they’re old-school will use one of the reproductions of the medieval decks like the Marseilles or Visconti. The typical magician will read the cards in a “spread”, a kind of layout (which varies, there are hundreds of them); whereas a really experienced magician will likely omit the spread and read the cards just by laying a series of them out in order. A serious obsessive of ceremonial magick or crowleyana will tend to use an extremely complex counting system that originated with the 19th century “Order of the Golden Dawn”; done in full, that kind of system takes a couple of hours to do a reading.

Runes: This is a relative newcomer to western occultism, popularized in the 70s by pagans who were looking to revive the “norse tradition” and later embraced by new-agers.  The runes are the viking alphabet, which has 24 letters; each letter has a literal meaning, and it has a divinatory significance; for example the f-rune, “fehu”, literally means “cattle” and it symbolizes material issues (usually material prosperity). Runes today are used by hardcore magicians, wiccans, new agers, other kinds of pagans; they’re widely adopted, though still most popular among “asatru” (norse pagans).  The latter are mostly dedicated revivalists of ancient norse religion, who try to strive for authenticity; though there’s also a seedy minority of these that mix up runic magic with neo-nazi philosophy (usually, the latter are rightly reviled by mainstream norse pagans; they could also make good occult Villains for a campaign, its always fun to beat the shit out of nazis).  Newbs will use cheap store-bought runes made of plastic, ceramic, or (most popular with new agers) crystal. 

Serious students of the runes will try to follow the old rules about them: namely that runes for divination should be made out of organic material: wood or occasionally bone.  Real hardcore types won’t settle for anything other than carving their own runes, which they will then guard lovingly; though the truly batshit obsessive types will sometimes insist on carving a new set of runes for every divination, ritually burning the runes after they are used. The ignorant will follow bad book-advice and read runes in pretty well exactly the same way as tarot cards, laying them out in a “spread”, while those who actually know the way runes are meant to be used will instead literally “cast” the runes, throwing a certain number of them so that they fall into patterns which are then part of the interpretation, sometimes within the boundaries of a traced or drawn circle.  Aside from divination, the runic alphabet can also be used for a variety of magical purposes, most notably the creation of sigils.

I Ching: This chinese system of divination first became popularized among western magicians by Aleister Crowley, who was the first white man (that we know of) to regularly use the I Ching for divination. Crowley actually liked the I Ching far more than the Tarot, relying on the I Ching much more frequently (we know this because of the records kept in his magical diaries).  The reason for this is that while readings with the Tarot (or the runes) tend to be kind of vague even in the best of times, dealing in symbols that you then have to try to decipher the meaning of; the I Ching is motherfucking specific.  Its all “go do this” or “don’t go there” or “you’ll fuck up, but it won’t be your fault, so do this anyways”.  It gives a much more specific and personal kind of oracle while the Tarot or Runes give a more open kind of oracle that seems to deal with larger issues or trends; for me, the Tarot is for sensing patterns and sweeping developments while the I Ching is for when I want the answer to a concrete question. Both have different uses.
(Runes are somewhere in between the two, by the way, but closer to the Tarot)

Later, the I Ching became incredibly popular with the hippies in the 1960s, and has become a mainstay of the magical community ever since.  Of the three, it is the one least popular among the newbs, since it requires interpreting directly from a book (the I Ching itself), and leaves the least room for making  it up as you go along; to use it really well also requires at least some knowledge of Confucian/Taoist metaphysics, and an understanding of the elements (and a good translation! most translations focus on obsessive sinological minutiae  and are exactly the opposite of good for practical divination work). 

The I Ching is a book that, like the runes or the tarot, presents a working model of reality, based on a series of 8 trigrams that when combined in pairs form 64 hexagrams.  Each trigram is binary, either a single solid line or a single broken line.  “Post-modern” magicians (hipsters) like to make a very big deal about how the I Ching connects to all kinds of things from computer programing to genetic code to chaos theory to quantum mechanics, invoking all kinds of pseudoscience to explain their reasoning.
The I Ching itself describes the flow of elements over time,  how one set of circumstances evolves into another.  You use a method of divination (usually tossing three coins six times) to get a hexagram that represent the present; and as each line can be either “stable” or “changing”, the changing lines (the ones that form the really important part of the divination) determine what the second “future” hexagram will be, by changing the lines from solid to broken or vice-versa.  While less newbs tend to use the I Ching, you may find them using I-ching themed oracle-decks, which serious fans of the I Ching tend to deplore.  Unlike other methods of divination, it is not a sign of clueless newbie-ism to be referring to the book; only the craziest of fanatics is likely to have memorized the entire text of the I Ching (I’ve been using the I Ching on a very regular basis for two decades and haven’t come even close to that, despite being pretty hardcore). But a newbie will be likely to seem more lost paging through the book, will have more trouble remembering the meaning of the hexagrams, or trigrams, etc.  Serious Crowley-fanatics can be identified by the fact that they might refer to this system as the “Yi King” (the old-timey name for it, back in Crowley’s days when Beijing was “Peking”); they are also likely to use six sticks instead of three coins, as that’s the method Crowley devised when the magnificent bastard started using the book before anyone in the west actually had a clue as to the traditional method of casting a hexagram. 

Really hardcore guys will use the “old” traditional method of using a huge bundle of yarrow stalks, in a much longer and more complicated ritual process to generate a hexagram; they’ll tend to obstinately insist that this is a superior “more accurate” method.  Its possible that some truly batshit hardcore guys might even use the even-older method of burning a turtle-shell over an open flame and looking for lines to determine the hexagram. Those would be the kind of magicians you’d either really really not want to meet... or really want to meet, I guess, depending on the circumstances.

Divination techniques are a great element to include in any modern-occult game, since they provide ready-made props.  Its not hard to get your hands on a tarot deck or a set of runes (or the I Ching, though that’s not as visually effective), which are good visual aids to use as flavouring in your actual game; you could even try to figure out some way of incorporating a “reading” done in real-time to the system of the game you’re running; though I’ll leave that for you to figure out.


Currently Smoking: Davidoff 400 series apple + C&D’s Pirate Kake

(originally reposted June 4th, 2013, on the old blog)

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Cordon Street Market (Drum Circle and Wheatgrass Juice Not Included)

It's funny, I've been here almost 11 years now. You'd think I'd get over it.  And yet, it still happens, fairly often, that I look around me and say "holy shit, I'm in Uruguay"!  And at the same time, that I'm amazed by the strange kind of beauty this city has.

There's also something to say about how, once a week, the block of a regular street right around the corner from my house ends up being turned into a farmer's market.  Not a hipster farmer-market that's all clean and ersatz and full of organic quinoa and carob energy-booster smoothies and crystal healing talismans and other things that have fuck all to do with farmers.  No.  A real market, of real stuff from farms brought in fresh from the city and at ridiculously low prices.

Today, I bought a big bag of some amazing black olives, a quarter-kilo hunk of sharp slightly-bitter 'cuartirolo' cheese, a dry, slightly spicy, really delicious "chacarero" sausage, and a dozen of the most amazing sweet mandarin oranges, with a flavor like you wouldn't believe, picked about a two-hour drive from this very spot.

Total cost for all of the above? Under $9US.

So yeah, it's fucking awesome.

And now, pictures!  Forgive the poor quality, I am man of many talents, photography is not one of them:

This is right around the corner from my house.  It's not some special area, it's not in some theme park pseudo-barn done-up with public or corporate sponsorship.  It's just a regular street that cars drive through 6.5 days (and every night) of the week, but for half a day on Friday it becomes a farmer's market.

I live in El Cordon, which I think is just about the best neighbourhood to live in.  It's statistically the safest (old ladies can walk their little dogs on the street at night), it's super super central (five blocks from the beach, five blocks from downtown), it's gradually becoming trendier with a lot of restaurants and little shops and an increasingly 'hipster' vibe (that's a mixed blessing), and real estate is inexpensive. Plus, it's beautiful.

Here's where I get my cheese and sausages.  It's like a little supermarket built inside a 60-year old bus.  Super-cheap prices, and the people are extremely friendly. You have to take a number, and these guys are so popular it's usually best to take your number first thing, then do all your other shopping while you wait for them to call you.

This is what a farmer's market really looks like, boys and girls.  Not a whiff of patchouli nor a glance of hemp pants to be found. Just incredible, all locally-grown produce.

And man, is it ever delicious.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Volcano + H&H's Beverwyck

Thursday, 28 August 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: The Monolith Beyond Space and Time

This is a review of the LotFP adventure "The Monolith Beyond Space and Time", written by James Raggi, published by LotFP.  It's a module about 46 pages in length, with a full-color cover feauring a weird monolith in a misty wood. 

The interior has only a very few black and white illustrations, most of them creepy but nothing reaching the levels of gore or shock that some other LotFP adventures sometimes contain.

What can I say about this adventure?!

There's two things you absolutely need to know about "The Monolith Beyond Space and Time":
1) It involves a Monolith
2) Said Monolith is Beyond Space and Time

I can certainly say that Monolith is a truly excellent, though highly destructive adventure for the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  Unfortunately, it was intended and presented as being for D&D.

As a D&D adventure, Monolith is yet another in a series of Raggi Party-Killers.  A particularly weird one, where what will get you is not so much monsters or dastardly traps, but just weird space/time effects around the aforementioned Monolith.  There's not much explanation of why you'd go after it in the first place, the promise of treasure, I suppose.  There isn't very much in the way of treasure to be had, just a 99% chance of being completely doomed.

Now don't get me wrong, there's some really really creative writing going on in Monolith.  The weird effects are truly weird, some of them just about qualify as 'scary', and the whole concept is brilliantly rendered.  Unfortunately, this is certainly not an adventure you could run as part of an ongoing campaign (at least, not one  where the idea is not to just keep going with an entirely new party).  It's only not a 'nega-dungeon' by virtue of not having a dungeon (though I guess you could call the dimensional space inside the Monolith a "dungeon").  It is certainly a "nega-adventure" in that for the player characters, the best way to "win" would be not to play at all; the cost-benefit ratio is such that not into the valley of the Monolith is absolutely and by a wide-margin the best choice.

And no, that's not the case with "all adventures".  Most standard D&D adventures on this side of the Tomb of Horrors are such that while there's considerable risk, there's also considerable payoff. In Monolith, there's a gigantic level of risk (and mainly from "dangers" you can't remove with a sword-blow or cast spell) and only the tiniest chance of a payoff.

So what is the adventure good for?  You could certainly use it for a D&D one-shot where you didn't have to worry about un-fucked-up survivability.  Note that you'd need a particular group; one that does not have a problem with really crazy surreal stuff happening.
You could also pretty much use it as-is with Call of Cthulhu; there's nothing about the Monolith's micro-setting that demands it be set in a medieval fantasy world.  It would only be slightly weirder for a group of dudes from the 1920s to end up in the valley of the Monolith than for a group of guys from Greyhawk.

As far as utility for cannibalization, Monolith doesn't really have as much potential as some of the other LotFP weirdo products.  I recently reviewed "The God That Crawls", and that adventure (which is pretty brutal but WAY more conventional by comparison) certainly had a number of elements that could be stripped for use in other adventures.  Monolith has a couple of really frightening monsters, weird effects, and some oddball spells that might be usable, but on the whole it's not quite as practical for that purpose.

So, the good: great eerie writing. Very unique concept. More "mythos weird" than almost any CoC adventure ever written.

The Bad: as a D&D adventure, it will probably murder your entire party, and piss off all your players, unless they specifically know this is what they're getting into beforehand.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + H&H's Beverwyck

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Lords of Olympus: Khaos and Order

In the Lords of Olympus game, if you’re playing it true to the classical mold, chaos (or Khaos, if you prefer) and order should be a major theme.  The ancients viewed the universe as emerging out of Khaos, which was a literal entity, a primordial deity: inhuman, uncontrollable, ever-changing.  But from this Khaos structure came to exist, and demarcation lines created that allowed order to establish itself (starting with Phanes, and moving on from there).

Most of the story of humanity is about creating order from chaos: the family, the tribe, the city-state, all of these were steps in a progressive building-up of order, where beyond the limits of that order there was savage chaos, and where the risk of collapse of these man-made structures and institutions was a risk of being flung into a wildness that is fundamentally inimical to mankind.

Even the gods in the Lords of Olympus universe are largely about that same kind of progression: the Primordials start with Khaos, and then move towards those entities that are the very first semblances of a kind of order-in-nature (the night sky, the day, the stars, etc), but they are all still largely chaotic in their nature; there’s nothing very civilized about them. Even those primordials which embody human concepts (like Nemesis, Hypnos, Momus, or Eris) are all still representative of the most primal and uncontrolled parts of the human psyche (revenge, sleep, mockery, discord) that are threatening to civilization.

The Titans were a step toward a  more civilized nature, but they are largely the gods of a barbarian state; they are clearly not inhuman the way the primordials mostly are, but they are still far more rough-around-the-edges than what would come after them.  Uranus, the divine King of the primordial era, despised the order that he saw as weakness in his Titan children; he was deposed by Cronus, who created a new kind of order, but it was the order of a barbarian king; he refused to share his rule.
The Olympians represent the order of the city-state; a more civilized very human kind of order.  While Zeus is still despotic by modern standards, he has willingly shared his power with his brothers Poseidon and Hades, and has set up rules for the gods and their conduct. Olympians and their power, unlike those of the Primordials or the Titans, is based on the building up of structures, rather than violence or the tearing down of reality.

In a campaign, these themes can be addressed in a number of ways: certainly, the struggles with Primordial forces or the Titans (or their remnants) can be a common theme.  Monstrosities (like many of the children of Gaia) represent a chaos that threatens the stability of realms.  There is also the danger of chaos within the ranks of the Olympians, of the sophisticated structures and balance of power being upset by some event that threatens in turn the stability of creation itself.

Finally, you also have Dionysus; the God Who Comes, the prophesied future ruler of creation.  But what kind of god will he be? In one sense, he seems to represent a return toward chaos; he spends his time in decadent orgiastic ecstasy; his closest ally is the savage god Pan.  But it is also not quite that simple, because the anarchy of Dionysus may also be in fact another level of order: the freedom of an evolved creation, able to govern itself; he may yet be the god of Liberty; and what he might sweep aside is the brutality or despotism that remains in the Olympian court.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Volcano + H&H’s Beverwyck

(Originally posted May 24, 2013; on the old blog)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

theRPGsite: Call for Submission(s)!

The RPGsite is currently accepting articles for submission for our new "Articles" section. 

What we're looking for is well-written articles, and preference in submissions will be given to people who are already relatively known people in the hobby; though all submissions will be considered except from people who were previously banned from theRPGsite.  It is not strictly necessary to be a member of theRPGsite to send an article submission, though we'd sure like it if you joined!

So whether you're an award-winning game designer, a blogger, or just a guy or gal who has something to say, as long as it's on an RPG related topic, and between 1000 and 4000 words, we'll be glad to consider you for publication to this special section of the site.

So far we've had some great articles, including:

- a first-look review of D&D 5e

-a really awesome guide to injuries and infections written by a real-life doctor!

-an interview with the designer of the SUPERS! Revised RPG

-a guide of how to convert 5e into a great Post-Apocalyptic Campaign

And many more!

So if you would like to make a submission, check out this thread for more information.

And meanwhile, be sure to take a look at our articles subforum!


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Amber Root Bulldog + C&D's Crowley's Best